OVER THE TOP
Was it only yesterday
Lusty comrades marched away?
Now they're covered up with clay.
Hearty comrades these have been,
But no more will they be seen
Drinking wine at Nouex-les-Mines.
A BRAZIER glowed on the floor of the trench and I saw fantastic figures in the red blaze; the interior of a vast church lit up with a myriad candles, and dark figures kneeling in prayer in front of their plaster saints. The edifice was an enchanted Fairyland, a poem of striking contrasts in light and shade. I peered over the top. The air blazed with star-shells, and Loos in front stood out like a splendid dawn. A row of impassive faces, sleep-heavy they looked, lined our parapet; bayonets, silver-spired, stood up over the sandbags; the dark bays, the recessed dug-outs with their khaki-clad occupants dimly defined in the light of little candles took on fantastic shapes. From the North Sea to the Alps stretched a line of men who could, if they so desired, clasp, one another's hands all the way along. A joke which makes men laugh at Ypres at dawn may be told on sentry-go at Souchez by dusk, and the laugh which accompanies it ripples through the long, deep trenches of Cuinchy, the breastworks of Richebourg and the chalk alleys of Vermelles until it breaks itself like a summer wave against the traverse where England ends and France begins.
Many of our men were asleep, and maybe dreaming. What were their dreams? . . . I could hear faint, indescribable rustlings as the winds loitered across the levels in front; a light shrapnel shell burst, and its smoke quivered in the radiant light of the star-shells. Showers and sparks fell from high up and died away as they fell. Like lives of men, I thought, and again that feeling of proximity to the enemy surged through me.
A boy came along the trench carrying a football under his arm. "What are you going to do with that?" I asked.
"It's some idea, this," he said with a laugh.
"We're going to kick it across into the German trench."
"It is some idea," I said. "What are our chances of victory in the game?"
"The playing will tell," he answered enigmatically. "It's about four o'clock now," he added, paused and became thoughtful. The mention of the hour suggested something to him. . . .
I could now hear the scattered crackling of guns as they called to one another saying: "It's time to be up and doing!" The brazen monsters of many a secret emplacement were registering their range, rivalry in their voices. For a little the cock-crowing of artillery went on, then suddenly a thousand roosts became alive and voluble, each losing its own particular sound as all united in one grand concert of fury. The orchestra of war swelled in an incessant fanfare of dizzy harmony. Floating, stuttering, whistling, screaming and thundering the clamorous voices belched into a rich gamut of passion which shook the grey heavens. The sharp, zigzagging sounds of high velocity shells cut through the pandemonium like forked lightning, and far away, as it seemed, sounding like a distant breakwater the big missiles from caterpillar howitzers lumbered through the higher deeps of the sky. The brazen lips of death cajoled, threatened, whispered, whistled, laughed and sung: here were the sinister and sullen voices of destruction, the sublime and stupendous paean of power intermixed in sonorous clamour and magnificent vibration.
Felan came out into the trench. He had been asleep in his dug-out. "I can't make tea now," he said, fumbling with his mess-tin. "We'll soon have to get over the top. Murdagh, Nobby Byrne and Corporal Clancy are here," he remarked.
"They are in hospital," I said.
"They were," said Felan; "but the hospitals have been cleared out to make room for men wounded in the charge. The three boys were ordered to go further back to be out of the way, but they asked to be allowed to join in the charge, and they are here now."
He paused for a moment. "Good luck to you, Pat," he said with a strange catch in his voice. "I hope you get through all right."
A heavy rifle fire was opened by the Germans and the bullets snapped viciously at our sandbags. Such little things bullets seemed in the midst of all the pandemonium! But bigger stuff was coming. Twenty yards away a shell dropped on a dug-out and sandbags and occupants whirled up in mid-air. The call for stretcher-bearers came to my bay, and I rushed round the traverse towards the spot where help was required accompanied by two others. A shrapnel shell burst overhead and the man in front of me fell. I bent to lift him, but he stumbled to his feet. The concussion had knocked him down; he was little the worse for his accident, but he felt a bit shaken. The other stretcher-bearer was bleeding at the cheek and temple, and I took him back to a sound dug-out and dressed his wound. He was in great pain, but very brave, and when another stricken boy came in he set about dressing him. I went outside into the trench. A perfect hurricane of shells was coming across, concussion shells that whirled the sandbags broadcast and shrapnel that burst high in air and shot their freight to earth with resistless precipitancy; bombs whirled in air and burst when they found earth with an ear-splitting clatter. "Out in the open!" I muttered and tried not to think too clearly, of what would happen when we got out there.
It was now grey day, hazy and moist, and the thick clouds of pale yellow smoke curled high in space and curtained the dawn off from the scene of war. The word was passed along. "London Irish lead on to assembly trench." The assembly trench was in front, and there the scaling ladders were placed against the parapet, ready steps to death, as someone remarked. I had a view of the men swarming up the ladders when I got there, their bayonets held in steady hands, and at a little distance off a football swinging by its whang from a bayonet standard.
The company were soon out in the open marching forward. The enemy's guns were busy, and the rifle and maxim bullets ripped the sandbags. The infantry fire was wild but of slight intensity. The enemy could not see the attacking party. But, judging by the row, it was hard to think that men could weather the leaden storm in the open.
The big guns were not so vehement now, our artillery had no doubt played havoc with the hostile batteries. . . . I went to the foot of a ladder and got hold of a rung. A soldier in front was clambering across. Suddenly he dropped backwards and bore me to the ground; the bullet caught him in the forehead. I got to my feet to find a stranger in grey uniform coming down the ladder. He reached the floor of the trench, put up his hands when I looked at him and cried in a weak, imploring voice, "Kamerad! Kamerad !"
"A German!" I said to my mate.
"H'm! h'm!" he answered.
I flung my stretcher over the parapet, and, followed by my comrade stretcher-bearer, I clambered up the ladder and went over the top.
ACROSS THE OPEN
"The firefly lamps were lighted yet,
As we Crossed the top of the parapet,
But the East grew pale to another fire,
As our bayonets gleamed by the foeman's wire.
And the Eastern sky was gold and grey,
And under our feet the dead men lay,
As we entered Loos in the morning."
THE moment had come when it was unwise to think. The country round Loos was like a sponge; the god of war had stamped with his foot on it, and thousands of men, armed, ready to kill. were squirted out on to the level, barren fields of danger. To dwell for a moment on the novel position of being standing where a thousand deaths swept by, missing you by a mere hair's breadth, would be sheer folly. There on the open field of death my life was out of my keeping, but the sensation of fear never entered my being. There was so much simplicity and so little effort in doing what I had done, in doing what eight hundred comrades had done, that I felt I could carry through the work before me with as much credit as my code of self respect required. The maxims went crackle like dry brushwood under the feet of a marching host. A bullet passed very close to my face like a sharp, sudden breath; a second hit the ground in front, flicked up a little shower of dust, and ricochetted to the left, hitting the earth many times before it found a resting place. The air was vicious. with bullets; a million invisible birds flicked their wings very close to my face. Ahead the clouds of smoke, sluggish low-lying fog, and fumes of bursting shells, thick in volume, receded towards the German trenches, and formed a striking background for the soldiers who were marching up a low slope towards the enemy's parapet, which the smoke still hid from view. There was no haste in the forward move, every step was taken with regimental precision, and twice on the way across the Irish boys halted for a moment to correct their alignment. Only at a point on the right there was some confusion and a little irregularity. Were the men wavering? No fear! The boys on the right were dribbling the elusive football towards the German trench.
Raising the stretcher, my mate and I went forward. For the next few minutes I was conscious of many things. A slight rain was falling; the smoke and fumes I saw had drifted back, exposing a dark streak on the field of green, the enemy's trench. A little distance away from me three men hurried forward, and two of them carried a box of rifle ammunition. One of the bearers fell flat to earth, his two mates halted for a moment, looked at the stricken boy, and seemed to puzzle at something. Then they caught hold of the box hangers and rushed forward. The man on the ground raised himself on his elbow and looked after his mates; then sank down again to the wet ground. Another soldier came crawling towards us on his belly, looking for all the world like a gigantic lobster which had escaped from its basket. His lower lip was cut clean to the chin and hanging apart; blood welled through the muddy khaki trousers where they covered the hips.
I recognised the fellow.
"Much hurt, matey?" I asked.
"I'll manage to get in," he said.
"Shall I put a dressing on?" I inquired.
"I'll manage to get into our own trench," he stammered, spitting the blood from his lips. ---There are others out at the wires. S---- has caught it bad. Try and get him in, Pat."
"Right, old man," I said, as he crawled off. "Good luck."
My cap was blown off my head as if by a violent gust of wind, and it dropped on the ground. I put it on again, and at that moment a shell burst near at hand and a dozen splinters sung by my car. I walked forward with a steady step.
"What took my cap off?" I asked myself. "It went away just as if it was caught in a breeze. God!" I muttered, in a burst of realisation, "it was that shell passing." I breathed very deeply, my blood rushed down to my toes and an airy sensation filled my body. Then the stretcher dragged.
"Lift the damned thing up," I called to my mate over my shoulder. There was no reply. I looked round to find him gone, either mixed up in a whooping rush of kilted Highlanders, who had lost their objective and were now charging parallel to their own trench, or perhaps he got killed. . . . How strange that the Highlanders could not charge in silence, I thought, and then recollected that most of my boyhood friends, Donegal lads, were in Scottish regiments. . . . I placed my stretcher on my shoulder, walked forward towards a bank of smoke which seemed to be standing stationary, and came across our platoon sergeant and part of his company.
"Are we going wrong, or are the Jocks wrong?" he asked his men, then shouted, "Lie flat, boys, for a minute, until we see where we are. There's a big crucifix in Loos churchyard, and we've got to draw on that."
The men threw themselves flat; the sergeant went down on one knee and leant forward on his rifle, his hands on the bayonet standard, the fingers pointing upwards and the palms pressed close to the sword which was covered with rust. . . . How hard it would be to draw it from a dead body! . . . The sergeant seemed to be kneeling in prayer. . . . In front the cloud cleared away, and the black crucifix standing over the graves of Loos became revealed.
"Advance, boys!" said the sergeant. "Steady on to the foot of the Cross and rip the swine out of their trenches."
The Irish went forward. . . .
A boy sat on the ground bleeding at the shoulder and knee.
"You've got hit," I said.
"In a few places," he answered, in a very matter-of-fact voice. "I want to get into a shellhole." .
"I'll try and get you into one," I said. "But I want someone to help me. Hi! you there! Come and give me a hand."
I spoke to a man who sat on the rim of a crater near at hand. His eyes, set close in a white, ghastly face, stared tensely at me. He sat in a crouching position, his head thrust forward, his right hand gripping tightly at a mud-stained rifle. Presumably he was a bit shaken and was afraid to advance further.
"Help me to get this fellow into a shell-hole," I called. "He can't move."
There was no answer.
"Come along," I cried, and then it was suddenly borne to me that the man was dead. I dragged the wounded boy into the crater and dressed his wounds.
A shell struck the ground in front, burrowed, and failed to explode.
"Thank Heaven!" I muttered, and hurried ahead. Men and pieces of men were lying all over the place. A leg, an arm, then again a leg, cut off at the hip. A finely formed leg, the latter, gracefully putteed. A dummy leg in a tailor's window could not be more graceful. It might be X; he was an artist in dress, a Beau Brummel in khaki. Fifty yards further along I found the rest of X. . . .
The harrowing sight was repellent, antagonistic to my mind. The tortured things lying at my feet were symbols of insecurity, ominous reminders of danger from which no discretion could save a man. My soul was barren of pity; fear went down into the innermost parts of me, fear for myself. The dead and dying lay all around me; I felt a vague obligation to the latter; they must be carried out. But why should I trouble! Where could I begin? Everything was so far apart. I was too puny to start my labours in such a derelict world. The difficulty of accommodating myself to an old task under new conditions was enormous.
A figure in grey, a massive block of Bavarian bone and muscle, came running towards me, his arms in air, and Bill Teake following him with a long bayonet.
"A prisoner!" yelled the boy on seeing me. "'Kamerad! Kamerad!' 'e shouted when I came up. Blimey! I couldn't stab 'im, so I took 'im prisoner. It's not 'arf a barney! 'Ave yer got a fag ter spare?"
The Cockney came to a halt, reached for a cigarette, and lit it.
The German stood still, panting like a dog.
"Double! Fritz, double!" shouted the boy, sending a little puff of smoke through his nose. "Over to our trench you go! Grease along if yer don't want a bayonet in your------!"
They rushed off, the German with hands in air, and Bill behind with his bayonet perilously close to the prisoner. There was something amusing in the incident, and I could not refrain from laughing. Then I got a whiff from a German gas-bomb which exploded near me, and I began spluttering and coughing. The irritation, only momentary, was succeeded by a strange humour. I felt as if walking on air, my head got light, and it was with difficulty that I kept my feet on earth. It would be so easy to rise into space and float away. The sensation was a delightful one; I felt so pleased with myself, with everything. A wounded man lay on the ground, clawing the earth with frenzied fingers. In a vague way, I remembered some ancient law which ordained me to assist a stricken man. But I could not do so now, the action would clog my buoyancy and that delightful. feeling of freedom which permeated my being. Another soldier whom I recognised, even at a distance, by his pink-and-white bald pate, so often a subject for our jokes, reeled over the blood-stained earth, his eyes almost bursting from their sockets.
"You look bad," I said to him with a smile.
He stared at me drunkenly, but did not answer.
A man, mother-naked, raced round in a circle, laughing boisterously. The rags that would class him as a friend or foe were gone, and I could not tell whether he was an Englishman or a German. As I watched him an impartial bullet went through his forehead, and he fell headlong to the earth. The sight sobered me and I regained my normal self.
Up near the German wire I found our Company postman sitting in a shell-hole, a bullet in his leg below the knee, and an unlighted cigarette in his mouth.
"You're the man I want," he shouted, on seeing me. And I fumbled in my haversack for bandages.
"No dressing for me, yet," he said with a smile. "There are others needing help more than I. What I want is a match."
As I handed him my match box a big high explosive shell flew over our heads and dropped fifty yards away in a little hollow where seven or eight figures in khaki lay prostrate, faces to the ground. The shell burst and the wounded and dead rose slowly into air to a height of six or seven yards and dropped slowly again, looking for all the world like puppets worked by wires.
"This," said the postman, who had observed the incident, "is a solution of a question which diplomacy could not settle, I suppose. The last argument of kings is a damned sorry business."
By the German barbed wire entanglements were the shambles of war. Here our men were seen by the enemy for the first time that morning. Up till then the foe had fired erratically through the oncoming curtain of smoke; but when the cloud cleared away, the attackers were seen advancing, picking their way through the wires which had been cut to little pieces by our bombardment. The Irish were now met with harrying rifle fire, deadly petrol bombs and hand grenades. Here I came across dead, dying and sorely wounded; lives maimed and finished, and all the romance and roving that makes up the life of a soldier gone for ever. Here, too, I saw, bullet-riddled, against one of the spider webs known as chevaux de frise, a limp lump of pliable leather, the football which the boys had kicked across the field.
I came across Flannery lying close to a barbed wire support, one arm round it as if in embrace. He was a clumsily built fellow, with queer bushy eyebrows and a short, squat nose. His bearing was never soldierly, but on a march he could bear any burden and stick the job when more alert men fell out. He always bore himself however with a certain grace, due, perhaps, to a placid belief in his own strength. He never made friends; a being apart, he led a solitary life. Now he lay close to earth hugging an entanglement prop, and dying.
There was something savage in the expression of his face as he looked slowly round, like an ox under a yoke, on my approach. I knelt down beside him and cut his tunic with my scissors where a burnt hole clotted with blood showed under the kidney. A splinter of shell had torn part of the man's side away. All hope was lost for the poor soul.
"In much pain, chummy?" I asked.
"Ah, Christ! yes, Pat," he answered. "Wife and two kiddies, too. Are we getting the best of it?"
I did not know how the fight was progressing, but I had seen a line of bayonets drawing near to the second trench out by Loos.
"Winning all along," I answered.
"That's good," he said. "Is there any hope for me?"
"Of course there is, matey," I lied. "You have two of these morphia tablets and lie quiet. We'll take you in after a while, and you'll be back in England in two or three days' time."
I placed the morphia under his tongue and he closed his eyes as if going to sleep. Then, with an effort, he tried to get up and gripped the wire support with such vigour that it came clean out of the ground. His legs shot out from under him, and, muttering something about rations being fit for pigs and not for men, he fell back and died.
The fighting was not over in the front trench yet, the first two companies had gone ahead, the other two companies were taking possession here. A sturdy Bavarian in shirt and pants was standing on a banquette with his bayonet over the parapet, and a determined look in his eyes. He had already done for two of our men as they tried to cross, but now his rifle seemed to be unloaded and he waited. Standing there amidst his dead countrymen he formed a striking figure. A bullet from one of our rifles would have ended his career speedily, but no one seemed to want to fire that shot. There was a moment of suspense, broken only when the monstrous futility of resistance became apparent to him, and he threw down his rifle and put up his hands, shouting "Kamerad! kamerad!" I don't know what became of him afterwards, other events claimed my attention.
Four boys rushed up, panting under the machine gun and ammunition belts which they carried. One got hit and fell to the ground, the maxim tripod which he carried fell on top of him. The remainder of the party came to a halt.
"Lift the tripod and come along," his mates shouted to one another.
'Who's goin' to carry it?" asked a little fellow with a box of ammunition.
"You," came the answer.
"Some other one must carry it," said the little fellow. "I've the heaviest burden."
"You've not," one answered. "Get the blurry thing on your shoulder."
"Blurry yourself!" said the little fellow. Someone else carry the thing. Marney can carry it."
"I'm not a damned fool!" said Marney. "It can stick there 'fore I take it across."
"Not much good goin' over without it," said the little fellow.
I left them there wrangling: the extra weight would have made no appreciable difference to any of them.
It was interesting to see how the events of the morning had changed the nature of the boys. Mild-mannered youths who had spent their working hours of civil life in scratching with inky pens on white paper, and their hours of relaxation in cutting capers on roller skates and helping dainty maidens to teas and ices, became possessed of mad Berserker rage and ungovernable fury. Now that their work was war the bloodstained bayonet gave them play in which they seemed to glory.
"Here's one that I've just done in," I heard M'Crone shout, looking approvingly at a dead German. "That's five of the bloody swine now."
M'Crone's mother never sends her son any money lest he gets into the evil habit of smoking cigarettes. He is of a religious turn of mind and delights in singing hymns, his favourite being, "There is a green hill far away." I never heard him swear before, but at Loos his language would make a navvy in a Saturday night taproom green with envy. M'Crone was not lacking in courage. I have seen him wait for death with untroubled front in a shell-harried trench, and now, inflicting pain on others, he was a fiend personified; such transformations are of common occurrence on the field of honour.
The German trench had suffered severely from our fire; parapets were blown in, and at places the trench was full to the level of the ground with sandbags and earth. Wreckage was strewn all over the place, rifles, twisted distortions of shapeless metal, caught by high-velocity shells, machine guns smashed to atoms, bombproof shelters broken to pieces like houses of cards; giants had been at work of destruction in a delicately fashioned nursery.
On the reverse slope of the parapet broken tins, rusty swords, muddy equipments, wicked-looking coils of barbed wire, and discarded articles of clothing were scattered about pell-mell. I noticed an unexploded shell perched on a sandbag, cocking a perky nose in air, and beside it was a battered helmet, the brass glory of its regal eagle dimmed with trench mud and wrecked with many a bullet.
I had a clear personal impression of man's ingenuity for destruction when my eyes looked on the German front line where our dead lay in peace with their fallen enemies on the parapet. At the bottom of the trench the dead lay thick, and our boys, engaged in building a new parapet, were heaping the sandbags on the dead men and consolidating the captured position.
GERMANS AT LOOS
"Some'ow a dyin' Alleymong don't seem a real Alleymong; you ain't able to 'ate 'im as you ought."---BILL TEAKE'S PHILOSOPHY.
FROM the day I left England up till the dawn of September 25th I never met a German, and I had spent seven months in France. At night when out on working-parties I saw figures moving out by the enemy trenches, mere shadows that came into view when an ephemeral constellation of star-shells held the heavens. We never fired at these shadows, and they never fired at us; it is unwise to break the tacit truces of the trenches. The first real live German I saw was the one who blundered down the ladder into our trench, the second raced towards our trenches with Bill Teake following at his heels, uttering threats and vowing that he would stab the prisoner if he did not double in a manner approved of by the most exacting sergeant-major.
Of those who are England's enemies I know, even now, very little. I cannot well pass judgment on a nation through seeing distorted lumps of clotting and mangled flesh pounded into the muddy floor of a trench, or strewn broadcast on the reverse slopes of a shell-scarred parapet. The enemy suffered as we did, yelled with pain when his wounds prompted him, forgot perhaps in the insane combat some of the nicer tenets of chivalry. After all, war is an approved licence for brotherly mutilation, its aims are sanctioned, only the means towards its end are disputed. It is a sad and sorry business from start to finish, from diplomacy that begets it to the Te Deums that rise to God in thanksgiving for victory obtained.
In the first German trench there were dozens of dead, the trench was literally piled with lifeless bodies in ugly grey uniforms. Curiosity prompted me to look into the famous German dug-outs. They were remarkable constructions, caves leading into the bowels of the earth, some of them capable of holding a whole platoon of soldiers. These big dug-outs had stairs leading down to the main chamber and steps leading cut. In one I counted forty-seven steps leading down from the floor of the trench to the roof of the shelter. No shell made was capable of piercing these constructions, but a bomb flung downstairs.
I looked into a pretentious dug-out as I was going along the trench. This one, the floor of which was barely two feet below the level of the trench floor, must have been an officer's. It was sumptuously furnished, a curtained bed with a white coverlet stood in one corner. Near the door was a stove and a scuttle of coal. In another corner stood a table, and on it was a half bottle of wine, three glasses, a box of cigars, and a vase of flowers. These things I noticed later; what I saw first on entering was a wounded German lying across the bed, his head against the wall and his feet on the floor. His right arm was almost severed at the shoulder.
I entered and gazed at him. There was a look of mute appeal in his eyes, and for some reason I felt ashamed of myself for having intruded on the privacy of a dying man. There come times when a man on the field of battle should be left alone to his own thoughts. I unloosened my water-bottle from its holder and by sign. inquired if he wanted a drink. He nodded, and I placed the bottle to his lips.
"Sprechen Anglais?" I inquired, and he shook his head.
I took my bottle of morphia tablets from my pocket and explained to him as well as I was able what the bottle contained, and he permitted me to place two under his tongue. When rummaging in my pocket I happened to bring out my rosary beads and he noticed them. He spoke and I guessed that he was inquiring if I was a Catholic.
I nodded assent.
He fumbled with his left hand in his tunic pocket and brought out a little mudstained booklet and handed it to me. I noticed that the volume was a prayer-book. By his signs I concluded that he wanted me to keep it.
I turned to leave, but he called me back and pointed to his trousers pocket as if he wanted me to bring something out of it. I put in my hand and drew out a little leather packet from which the muzzle of a revolver peeped forth. This I put in my pocket. He feared that if some of our men found this in his possession his life might be a few hours shorter than it really would be if he were left to die in peace. I could see that he required me to do something further for him. Raising his left hand with difficult (I now saw that blood was flowing down the wrist) he pointed at his tunic pocket, and I put my hand in there. A clasp-knife, a few buttons, a piece of string and a photo were all that the pocket contained. The photograph showed a man, whom I saw was the soldier, a woman and a little child seated at a table. I put it in his hand, and with brilliant eyes and set teeth he raised his head to look at it. . . .
I went outside. MCrone was coming along the trench with a bomb in his hand.
"Any of them in that dug-out?" he asked me.
"One," I replied.
"Then I'll give him this," M'Crone shouted. His gestures were violent, and his indifference to personal danger as shown in his loud laughter was somewhat exaggerated. As long as' he had something to do he was all right, but a moment's thought would crumple him up like a wet rag.
"I've done in seven of them already," he shouted.
"The one in here is dying," I said. "Leave him alone."
M'Crone went to the dug-out door, looked curiously in, then walked away.
Behind the German trench I found one of our boys slowly recovering from an attack of gas. Beside him lay a revolver, a mere toy of a thing, and touching him was a German with a bullet in his temple. The boy told me an interesting story as I propped him up in a sitting position against a couple of discarded equipments.
"I tripped up, and over I went," he said. "I came to slowly, and was conscious of many things 'fore I had the power to move my hands or feet. What do you think was happenin'? There was a bloomin' German sniper under cover pottin' at our boys, and that cover was a bundle of warm, livin' flesh; the blighter's cover was me! 'If I get my hand in my pocket,' I says to myself, 'I'll get my revolver and blow the beggar's brains out.!"
"Blow out his brains with that!" I said, looking at the weapon. "You might as well try-to blow out his brains with a pinch of snuff!"
"That's all you know!" said the boy. "Anyway, I got my hand into my pocket, it crawled in like a snake, and I got the little pet out. And the German was pot-pottin' all the time. Then I fetched the weapon up, stuck the muzzle plunk against the man's head and pulled the trigger twice. He didn't half kick up a row. See if the two bullets have gone through one hole, Pat."
"They have," I told him.
"I knew it," he answered. "Ah! it's an easy job to kill a man. You just rush at him and you see his eyes and nothin' else. There's a mist over the trench. You shove your bayonet forward and its sticks in something soft and almost gets dragged out of your hands. Then you get annoyed because you can't pull it back easy. That's all that happens and you've killed a man. . . . How much water have you got?"
A German youth of seventeen or eighteen with a magnificent helmet on his head and a red cross on his arm was working in the centre of a square formed by four of his dead countrymen, digging a grave. The sweat stood out on his forehead, and from time to time he cast an uneasy glance about him.
"What are you doing there?" I asked.
"Digging a grave for these," he said, in good English, pointing a shaky finger at the prostrate figures. "I suppose I'll be put in it myself," he added.
"Why?" I inquired.
"Oh! you English shoot all prisoners."
"You're a fool, Fritz," said M'Crone, approaching him. "We're not going to do you any. harm. Look, I've brought you something to eat."
He handed the boy a piece of cake, but the young Bavarian shook his head. He was trembling with terror, and the shovel shook in his hands. Fifteen minutes later when I passed that way carrying in a wounded man, I saw M'Crone and the young Bavarian sitting on the brink of the grave smoking cigarettes and laughing heartily over some joke.
Prisoners were going down towards M----- across the open. Prisoners are always taken across the open in bulk with as small an escort as possible. I saw a mob of two hundred go along, their hands in the air, and stern Tommies marching on flank and at rear. The party was a mixed one. Some of the prisoners were strong, sturdy youngsters of nineteen or twenty, others were old men, war-weary and dejected. A few were thin, weedy creatures, but others were massive blocks of bone and muscle, well set-up and brimful of energy even in their degrading plight.
Now and again queer assortments of these came along. One man was taken prisoner in a cellar on the outskirts of Loos. Our men discovered him asleep in a bed, pulled him out and found that he was enjoying a decent, civilised slumber. He came down to M----- as he was taken prisoner, his sole clothing being a pair of stockings, a shirt and an identity disc. Four big Highlanders, massive of shoulder and leg, escorted a puny, spectacled youth along the rim of the trench, and following them came a diminutive Cockney with a massive helmet on his head, the sole escort for twelve gigantic Bavarian Grenadiers. The Cockney had now only one enemy, he was the man who offered to help him at his work.
I came across a crumpled figure of a man in grey, dead in a shell-crater. One arm was bent under him, the other stretched forward almost touching a photograph of a woman and three little children. I placed the photograph under the edge of the man's tunic.
Near him lay another Bavarian, an old man deeply wrinkled and white haired, and wounded through the chest. He was trembling all over like a wounded bird, but his eyes were calm and they looked beyond the tumult and turmoil of the battlefield into some secret world that only the dying can see. A rosary was in the man's hand and his lips were mumbling something: he was telling his beads. He took no notice of me. Across the level at this point came a large party of prisoners amidst a storm of shells. The German gunners had shortened their range and were now shelling the ground occupied by their troops an hour previous. Callous, indifferent destruction! The oncoming prisoners were Germans---as men they were of no use to us; it would cost our country money and men to keep and feed them. They were Germans, but of no further use to Germany; they were her pawns in a game of war and now useless in the play. As if to illustrate this, a shell from a German gun dropped in the midst of the batch and pieces of the abject party whirled in air. The gun which had destroyed them had acted as their guardian for months. It was a frantic mother slaying her helpless brood.
The stretcher-bearer sees all the horror of war written in blood and tears on the shell-riven battlefield. The wounded man, thank heaven! has only his own pain to endure, although the most extreme agony which flesh is heir to is written large on the field of fight.
Several times that day I asked myself the question, "Why are all soldiers not allowed to carry morphia?" How much pain it would save! How many pangs of pain might morphia alleviate! How often would it give that rest and quiet which a man requires when an excited heart persists in pumping blood out through an open wound! In the East morphia is known as "The gift of God"; on the field of battle the gift of God should not be denied to men in great pain. It would be well indeed if all soldiers were taught first aid before a sergeant-major teaches them the art of forming fours on the parade ground.
HOW MY COMRADES FARED
Seven supple lads and clean
Sat down to drink one night,
Sat down to drink at Nouex-les-Mines
Then went away to fight.
Seven supple lads and clean
Are finished with the fight;
But only three at Nouex-les-Mines
Sit down to drink to-night.
FELAN went up the ladder of the assembly trench with a lighted cigarette in his mouth. Out on the open his first feeling was one of disappointment; to start with, the charge was as dull as a church parade. Felan, although orders were given to the contrary, expected a wild, whooping forward rush, but the men stepped out soberly, with the pious decision of ancient ladies going to church. In front the curtain of smoke receded, but the air stunk with its pungent odour still. A little valley formed by the caprice of the breeze opened in the fumes and its far end disclosed the enemy's wire entanglements. Felan walked through the valley for a distance of five yards, then he glanced to his right and found that there was nobody in sight there. Pryor had disappeared.
"Here, Bill, we've lost connection!" he cried, turning to his left. But his words were wasted on air; he was alone in his little glen, and invisible birds flicked angry wings close to his ears. His first inclination was to turn back, not through fear, but with a desire to make inquiries.
"I can't take a trench by myself," he muttered. "Shall I go back? If I do so some may call me a coward. Oh, damn it! I'll go forward."
He felt afraid now, but his fear was not that which makes a man run away; he was attracted towards that which engendered the fear as an urchin attracted towards a wasps' nest longs to poke the hive and annoy its occupants.
"Suppose I get killed now and see nothing," he said to himself. "Where is Bill, and Pryor, and the others?"
He reached the enemy's wire, tripped, and fell headlong. He got to his feet again and took stock of the space in front. There was the German trench, sure enough, with its rows of dirty sandbags, a machine-gun emplacement and a maxim peeping furtively through the loophole. A big, bearded German was adjusting the range of the weapon. He looked at Felan, Felan looked at him and tightened his grip on his rifle.
"You---!" said Felan, and just made one step forward when something "hit him all over," as he said afterwards. He dropped out of the world of conscious things.
A stretcher-bearer found him some twenty minutes later and placed him in a shell-hole, after removing his equipment, which he placed on the rim of the crater.
Felan returned to a conscious life that was tense with agony. Pain gripped at the innermost parts of his being. "I cannot stand this," he yelled. "God Almighty, it's hell!"
He felt as if somebody was shoving a red-hot bar of iron through his chest. Unable to move, he lay still, feeling the bar getting shoved further and further in. For a moment he had a glimpse of his rifle lying on the ground near him and he tried to reach it. But the unsuccessful effort cost him much, and he became unconscious again.
A shell bursting near his hand shook him into reality, and splinters whizzed by his head. He raised himself upwards, hoping to get killed outright. He was unsuccessful. Again his eyes rested on his rifle.
"If God would give me strength to get it into my hand," 'he muttered. "Lying here like a rat in a trap and I've seen nothing. Not a run for my money. . . . I suppose all the boys are dead. Lucky fellows if they die easy. . . . I've seen nothing only one German, and he done for me. I wish the bullet had gone through my head."
He looked at his equipment, at the bayonet scabbard lying limply under the haversack. The water-bottle hung over the rim of the shell-hole. "Full of rum, the bottle is, and I'm so dry. I wish I could get hold of it. I was a damned fool ever to join the Army. My God! I wish I was dead," said Felan.
The minutes passed by like a long grey thread unwinding itself slowly from some invisible ball, and the pain bit deeper into the boy. Vivid remembrances of long-past events flashed across his mind and fled away like telegraph poles seen by passengers in an express train. Then he lost consciousness again.
About eleven o'clock in the morning I found a stretcher-bearer whose mate had been wounded, and he helped me to carry a wounded man into our original front trench. On our way across I heard somebody calling 'Tat! Pat!" I looked round and saw a man crawling in on his hands and knees, his head almost touching the ground. He called to me, but he did not look in my direction. But I recognised the voice: the corporal was calling. I went across to him.
"Wounded?" I asked.
"Yes, Pat," he answered, and, turning, over, he sat down. His face was very white.
"You should not have crawled in," I muttered. "It's only wearing you out; and it's not very healthy here."
"Oh, I wanted to get away from this hell," he said.
"It's very foolish," I replied. "Let me see your wound."
I dressed the wound and gave the corporal two morphia tablets and put two blue crosses on his face. This would tell those who might come his way later that morphia had been given.
"Lie down," I said. "When the man whom we're carrying is safely in, we'll come back for you."
I left him. In the trench were many wounded lying on the floor and on the fire-steps. A soldier was lying face downwards, groaning. A muddy ground-sheet was placed over his shoulders. I raised the sheet and found that his wound was not dressed.
"Painful, matey?" I asked.
"Oh, it's old Pat," muttered the man.
"Who are you?" I asked, for I did not recognise the voice.
"You don't know me!" said the man, surprise in his tones.
He turned a queer, puckered face half round, but I did not recognise him even then; pain had so distorted his countenance.
"No," I replied. "Who are you?"
"Felan," he replied.
"My God!" I cried, then hurriedly, "I'll dress your wound. You'll get carried in to the dressing-station directly."
"It's about time," said Felan wearily. "I've been out a couple of days. . . . Is there no R.A.M.C.?"
I dressed Felan's wound, returned, and looked for the corporal, but I could not find him. Someone must have carried him in, I thought.
Kore had got to the German barbed-wire entanglement when he breathed in a mouthful of smoke which almost choked him at first, and afterwards instilled him with a certain placid confidence in everything. He came to a leisurely halt and looked around him. In front, a platoon of the 20th London Regiment, losing its objective, crossed parallel to the enemy's trench. Then he saw a youth who was with him at school, and he shouted to him. The youth stopped; Kore came up and the boys shook hands, leant on their rifles, and began to talk of old times when a machine gun played about their ears. Both got hit.
M'Crone disappeared; he was never seen by any of his regiment after the 25th.
The four men were reported as killed in the casualty list.
"The wages of sin and a soldier is death."---TRENCH PROVERB.
FOR long I had looked on Loos from a distance, had seen the red-brick houses huddled together brooding under the shade of the massive Twin Towers, the giant sentinels of the German stronghold. Between me and the village lurked a thousand rifles and death-dealing maxims; out in the open no understanding could preserve a man from annihilation, luck alone could save him.
On September 25th I lived in the village. By night a ruined village has a certain character of its own, the demolition of war seems to give each broken wall a consciousness of dignity and. worth; the moonlight ripples over the chimneys, and sheaves of shadow lurk in every nook and corner. But by day, with its broken, jerry-built houses, the village has no relieving features, it is merely a heap of broken bricks, rubble and mud. Some day, when ivy and lichen grow up the walls and cover green the litter that was Loos, a quaint, historical air may be given to the scene, but now it showed nothing but a depressing sameness of latchless doors, hingeless shutters, destruction and decay. Gone was all the fascinating, pathetic melancholy of the night when we took possession, but such might be expected: the dead is out of keeping with the day.
I was deep in thought as I stood at the door of the dressing-station, the first in Loos, and at the moment, the only one. The second German trench, the trench that was the enemy's at dawn, ran across the bottom of the street, and our boys were busy there heaping sandbags on the parapet. A dozen men with loaded rifles stood in the dressing-station on guard, and watchful eyes scanned the streets, looking for the enemy who were still in hiding in the cellars or sniping from the upper stories of houses untouched by shellfire. Down in our cellar the wounded and dying lay: by night, if they lived till then, we would carry them across the open to the dressing-station of Maroc. To venture across now, when the big guns chorused a fanfare of fury on the levels, would have been madness.
I went to the door and looked up the street; it was totally deserted; a dead mule and several khaki-clad figures lay on the pavement, and vicious bullets kicked up showers of sparks on the cobblestones. I could not tell where they were fired from. . . . A voice called my name and I turned round to see a head peep over the trench where it crossed the road. My mate, Bill Teake, was speaking.
"Come 'ere!" he called. "There's some doin's goin' to take place."
I rushed across the open road where a machine gun from a hill on the right was sending its messages with shrewish persistence, and tumbled into the trench at my mate's side.
"What are the doings?" I asked.
"The word 'as been passed along that a German observation balloon is going up over Lens an' we're goin' to shell it," said Bill.
"I can't see the blurry thing nohow," he added.
I looked towards Lens, and saw the town pencilled reddish in the morning light with several defiant chimney stacks standing in air. One of these was smoking, which showed that the enemy was still working it.
I saw the balloon rise over the town. It was a massive banana-like construction with ends pointing downwards, and it climbed slowly up the heavens. At that moment our gunners greeted it with a salvo of shrapnel and struck it, as far as I could judge.
It wriggled for a moment, like a big feather caught in a drift of air, then disappeared with startling suddenness.
"A neat shot," I said to Bill, who was now engaged on the task of looking for the snappy maxim shrew that tapped impatiently on the sandbagged parapet.
"I think it's up there," he said, pointing to the crest where three or four red-tiled houses snuggled in the cover of a spinney. "It's in one of them big 'ouses, bet yer. If I find it I'll get the artillery to blow the place to blazes!" he concluded, with an air of finality.
I went back to the dressing-station and found the men on guard in a state of tense excitement. They had seen a German cross the street two hundred yards up, and a red-haired youth, Ginger Turley, who had fired at the man, vowed that he had hit him.
"I saw 'im fall," said Ginger. "Then 'e crawled into a 'ouse on 'ands and knees."
"'E was only shammin'," said the corporal of the guard. "Nobody can be up to these 'ere Allemongs."
"I 'it 'im," said Ginger heatedly. "Couldn't miss a man at two 'undred and me gettin' proficiency pay for good shootin' at Snalbans (St. Albans)."
A man at the door suddenly uttered a loud yell.
"Get yer 'ipes," he yelled. "Quick! Grease out of it and get into the scrap. There's 'undreds of 'em up the streets. Come on! Come out of it! We'll give the swine socks!"
He rushed into the street, raised his rifle to his shoulder and fired two rounds. Then he raced up the street shouting, with the guard following. I looked out.
The men in khaki were rushing on a mob of some fifty or sixty Germans who advanced to meet them with trembling arms raised over their heads, signifying in their manner that they wished to surrender. I had seen many Germans surrender that morning and always noticed that their uplifted arms shook as if stricken with palsy. I suppose they feared what might befall them when they fell into our hands.
With hands still in air and escorted by our boys they filed past the door of the dressing-station. All but one man, who was wounded in the jaw.
"This is a case for you, Pat," said the corporal of the guard, and beckoned to the wounded German to come indoors.
He was an ungainly man, and his clothes clung to his body like rags to a scarecrow. His tunic was ripped in several places, and a mountain of Loos mud clung to his trousers. His face was an interesting one, his eyes, blue and frank, seemed full of preoccupation that put death out of reckoning.
"Sprechen Anglais?" I asked, floundering in the mud of Franco-Germaine interrogation. He shook his head; the bullet had blown away part of the man's jaw and he could not speak.
I dressed his wound in silence, an ugly, ghastly wound it looked, one that he would hardly recover from., As I worked with the bandages he brought out a little mirror, gazed for a moment at his face in the glass, and shook his head sadly. He put the mirror back in his pocket, but after a second he drew it out again and made a second inspection of his wound.
The dressing done, I inquired by signs if he wanted to sleep; there was still some room in the cellar. He pointed his finger at his tunic over the breast and I saw a hole there that looked as if made by a red-hot poker. I cut the clothes off the man with my scissors and discovered that the bullet which went through the man's jaw had also gone through his chest. He was bleeding freely at the back near the spine and in front over the heart. . . . The man brought out his mirror again, and, standing with his back to a shattered looking-glass that still remained in the building, he examined his wound after the manner of a barber who shows his customer the back of his head by use of a mirror. . . . Again the German shook his head sadly. I felt sorry for the man. My stock of bandages had run short, and Ginger Turley, who had received a parcel of underclothing a few days before, brought out a new shirt from his haversack, and tearing. it into strips, he handed me sufficient cloth for a bandage.
"Poor bloke!" muttered Turley, blushing a little as if ashamed of the kind action. "I suppose it was my shot, too. 'E must be the feller that went crawlin' into the buildin'."
"Not necessarily," I said, hoping to comfort Ginger.
"It was my shot that did it, sure enough," Ginger persisted. "I couldn't miss at two 'undred yards, not if I tried."
One of the men was looking at a little book, somewhat similar to the pay-book we carry on active service, which fell from the German's pocket.
"Bavarian!" read the man with the book, and fixed a look of interrogation on the wounded man, who nodded.
"Musician?" asked the man, who divined that certain German words stated that the Bavarian was a musician in civil life.
A sad look crept into the prisoner's eyes. He raised his hands and held them a little distance from his lips and moved his fingers rapidly; then he curved his left arm and drew his right slowly backward and forward across in front of his body.
We understood; he played the flute and violin. Ginger Turley loves ragtime and is a master of the mouth-organ; and now having met a brother artist in such a woeful plight, Ginger's feelings overcame him, and two tears gathered in his eyes.
"I wish I wasn't such a good shot," he muttered.
We wrapped the German up in a few rags, and since he wanted to follow his comrades, who left under escort, we allowed him to go. Ten minutes later, Bill Teake poked his little white potato of a nose round the door.
"I've found 'im out," he said, and his voice was full of enthusiasm.
"Who have you found out?" I asked.
"That bloomin' machine gun," Bill answered. "I saw a little puff of smoke at one of the winders of a 'ouse up in the spinney. I kept my eye on that 'ere winder. Ev'ry time I seed a puff of smoke, over comes a bullet. I told the officer, and he 'phones down to the artillery. There's goin' to be some doin's. Come on, Pat, and see the fun."
It was too good to miss. Both of us scurried across the road and took up a position in the trench from which we could get a good view of the spinney.
"That 'ouse there," said Bill, pointing to the red-brick building bordering a slag-heap known as "The Double Crassier" which tailed to a thin point near the village of Maroc. "There! see at the winder on the left a puff of smoke."
A bullet hit the sandbag at my side. I looked at the house indicated by Bill and saw a wisp of pale smoke trail up from one of the lower windows towards the roof.
"The machine gun's there, sure enough," I said.
Then a bigger gun spoke; a shell whizzed through the air and raised a cloud of black dust from the rim of the slag-heap.
"More to the left, you bounders, more to the left!" yelled Bill.
He could not have been more intent on the work if he were the gunner engaged upon the task of demolition.
The second shot crept nearer and a shrub uprooted whirled in air.
"That's the ticket!" yelled Bill, clapping his hands. "Come, gunner, get the bounder next time!"
The gunner got him with the next shot which struck the building fair in the centre and smashed it to pieces.
"That was a damned good one," said Bill approvingly. "The bloomin' gun is out of action now for the duration of war. Have you seen that bloke?"
Bill Teake pointed at a dead German who lay on the crest of the parados, his hands doubled under him, and his jaw bound with a bloodstained dressing.
"He just got killed a minute ago," said Bill. "He jumped across the trench when the machine gun copped 'im an 'e went down flop!"
"I've just dressed his wounds," I said.
"He'll need no dressin' now," said Bill, and added compassionately, "Poor devil! S'pose 'e 's 'ad some one as cared for 'im."
I thought of home and hoped to send a letter along to Maroc with a wounded man presently.
From there letters would be forwarded. I had a lead pencil in my pocket, but I had no envelope.
"I'll give you a half-franc for a green envelope," I said, and Bill Teake took from his pocket the green envelope, which needed no regimental censure, but was liable to examination at the Base.
" 'Arf-franc and five fags," he, said, speaking with the studied indifference of a fishwife making a bargain.
"Half a franc and two fags," I answered.
" 'Arf a franc and four fags," he said.
"Three fags," I ventured.
"Done," said Bill, and added, "I've now sold the bloomin' line of communication between myself and my ole man for a few coppers and three meesly fags."
"What's your old man's profession, Bill?" I asked.
"Yer don't know my ole man, Pat?" he inquired. "Everybody knows 'im. 'E 'as as good a reputation as old Times. Yer must 'ave seen 'im in the Strand wiv 'is shiny buttons, burnished like gold in a jooler's winder, carryin' a board wiv 'Globe Metal Polish' on it."
"Oh!" I said with a laugh.
"But 'e's a devil for 'is suds 'e is---"
"What are suds?" I asked.
"Beer," said Bill. "'E can 'old more'n any man in Lunnon, more'n the chucker-out at 'The Cat and Mustard Pot' boozer in W- Road even. Yer should see the chucker-out an' my ole man comin' 'ome on Saturday night. They keep themselves steady by rollin' in opposite directions."
"Men with good reputations don't roll home inebriated," I said. "Excessive alcoholic dissipation is utterly repugnant to dignified humanity. "
"Is your father a churchgoer?" I asked.
"Not 'im," said Bill. "'E don't believe that one can go to 'eaven by climbin' up a church steeple. 'E's a good man, that's wot 'e is. 'E works 'ard when 'e's workin', 'e can use 'is fives wiv anyone, 'e can take a drink or leave it, but 'e prefers takin' it. Nobody can take a rise, out o' 'im fer 'e knows 'is place, an' that's more'n some people do."
"Bill, did you kill any Germans this morning?" I asked.
"Maybe I did," Bill answered, "and maybe I didn't. I saw one bloke, an Allemong, in the front trench laughin' like 'ell. 'I'll make yer laugh,' I said to 'im, and shoved my bayonet at 'is bread basket. Then I seed 'is foot; it was right off at the ankle. I left 'im alone. After that I 'ad a barney. I was goin' round a traverse and right in front of me was a Boche, eight foot 'igh or more. Oh! 'c 'ad a bayonet as long as 'imself, and a beard as long as 'is bayonet."
"What did you do?"
"Oh! I retreated," said Bill. "Then I met four of the Jocks, they 'ad bombs. I told them wot I seen an' they went up with me to the place. The Boche saw us and 'e rushed inter a dug-out. One of the Jocks threw a bomb, and bang!---"
"Have you seen Kore?" I asked.
"No, I didn't see 'im at all," Bill answered.
"I was mad for a while. Then I saw a lot of Alleymongs rush into a dug-out. 'Gor-blimey!' I said to the Jocks, 'we'll give 'em 'ell,' and I caught 'old of a German bomb, one 'o them kind where you pull the string out and this sets the fuse goin'. I coiled the string round my fingers and pulled. But I couldn't loosen the string. It was a go! I 'eld out my arm with the bomb 'angin'. 'Take it off!' I yelled to the Jocks. Yer should see them run off. There was no good in me runnin'. Blimey! I didn't 'arf feel bad. Talk about a cold sweat; I sweated icicles! And there was the damned bomb 'angin' from my 'and and me thinkin' it was goin' to burst. But it didn't; I 'adn't pulled the string out far enough.
"And that's Loos," he went on, standing on the fire-step and looking up the road. "It's bashed about a lot. There's 'ardly a 'ouse standin'. And that's the Tower Bridge," he added, looking fixedly at the Twin Towers that stood scarred but unbroken over Loos coal mine.
"There was a sniper up there this mornin'," he told me. " 'E didn't 'arf cause some trouble. Knocked out dozens of our fellers. 'E was brought down at last by a bomb."
He laughed as he spoke, then became silent.
For fully five minutes there was not a word spoken.
I approached the parapet stealthily and looked up the street of Loos, a solemn, shell-scarred, mysterious street where the dead lay amidst the broken tiles. Were all those brown bundles dead men? Some of' them maybe were still dying; clutching at life with vicious energy. A bundle lay near me, a soldier in khaki with his hat gone. I could see his close, compact, shiny curls which seemed to have been glued on to his skull. Clambering up the parapet I reached forward and turned him round and saw his face. It was leaden-hued and dull; the wan and almost colourless eyes fixed on me in a vague and glassy stare, the jaw dropped sullenly, and the tongue hung out. Dead. . . . And up the street, down in the cellars, at the base of the Twin Towers, they were dying. How futile it was to trouble about one when thousands needed help. Where should I begin? Who should I help first? Any help I might be able to give seemed so useless. I had been at work all the morning dressing the wounded, but there were so many. I was a mere child emptying the sea with a tablespoon. I crawled into the trench again to find Bill still looking over the parapet. This annoyed me., Why, I could not tell.
"What are you looking at?" I asked.
There was no answer. I looked along the trench and saw that all the men were looking towards the enemy's line; watching, as it seemed, for something to take place. None knew what the next moment would bring forth. The expectant mood was prevalent. All were waiting.
Up the road some houses were still peopled with Germans, and snipers were potting at us with malicious persistency, but behind the parapet we were practically immune from danger. As we looked a soldier appeared round the bend of the trench, the light of battle in his eyes and his body festooned with bombs.
"It's dangerous to go up the centre of the street," I called to him as he came to a halt beside me and looked up the village.
"Bend down," I said. "Your head is over the parapet." I recognised the man. He was Gilhooley the bomber.
"What does it matter?" he muttered. "I want to get at them. . . . Oh! I know yer face. . . .
D'ye mind the champagne at Nouex-les-Mines. . . . These bombs are real ones, me boy. Do you know where the snipers are?"
"There's one up there," I said, raising my head and pointing to a large house on the left of the road near the Twin Towers. "I saw the smoke of his rifle when he fired at me a while ago."
"Then he must get what he's lookin' for," said Gilhooley, tightening his belt of bombs, and, clutching his rifle, rushed out into the roadway. "By Jasus! I'll get him out of it!"
I raised my head and watched, fascinated. With prodigious strides Gilhooley raced up the street, his rifle clutched tightly in his hand. Suddenly he paused, as if in thought, and his rifle went clattering across the cobbles. Then he sank slowly to the ground, kicking out a little with his legs. The bullet had hit him in the jaw and it came out through the back of his neck., . . .
I could hear the wounded crying and moaning somewhere near, or perhaps far away. A low, lazy breeze slouched up from the field which we had crossed that morning, and sound travelled far. The enemy snipers on Hulluch copse were busy, and probably the dying were being hit again. Some of them desired it, the slow process of dying on the open field of war is so dreadful. . . . A den of guns, somewhere near Lens, became voluble, and a monstrous fanfare of fury echoed in the heavens. The livid sky seemed to pull itself up as if to be out of the way; under it the cavalcades of war ran riot. A chorus of screeches and yells rose trembling and whirling in air, snatching at each other like the snarling and barking of angry dogs.
Bill stood motionless, looking at the enemy's line, his gaze concentrated on a single point; in his eyes there was a tense, troubled expression, as if he was calculating a sum which he could not get right. Now and again he would shake his head as if trying to throw something off and address a remark to the man next him, who did not seem to hear. Probably he was asleep. In the midst of artillery tumult some men are overcome with languor and drop asleep as they stand. On the other hand, many get excited, burst into song and laugh boisterously at most commonplace incidents.
Amidst the riot, an undertone of pain became more persistent than ever. The levels where the wounded lay were raked with shrapnel that burst viciously in air and struck the bloodstained earth with spiteful vigour.
The cry for stretcher-bearers came down the trench, and I hurried off to attend to the stricken. I met him crawling along on all fours, looking like an ungainly lobster that has escaped from a basket. A bullet had hit the man in the back and he was in great pain; so much in pain that when I was binding his wound he raised his fist and hit me in the face.
"I'm sorry," he muttered, a moment afterwards. "I didn't mean it, but, my God! this is hell!"
"You'll have to lie here," I said, when I put the bandage on. "You'll get carried out at night when we can cross the open."
"I'm going now," he said. "I want to go now. I must get away. You'll let me go, won't you, Pat?"
"You'll be killed before you're ten yards across the open," I said. "Better wait till to-night."
"Does the trench lead out?" he asked.
"It probably leads to the front trench which the Germans occupied this morning," I said.
"Well, if we get there it will be a step nearer the dressing-station, anyway," said the wounded boy. "Take me away from here, do please."
"Can you stand upright?"
"I'll try," he answered, and half weeping and half laughing, he got to his feet. "I'll be able to walk down," he muttered.
We set off. I walked in front, urging the men ahead to make way for a wounded man. No order meets with such quick obedience as "Make way for wounded."
All the way from Loos to the churchyard which the trench fringes and where the bones of the dead stick out through the parapet, the trench was in fairly good order, beyond that was the dumping ground of death.
The enemy in their endeavour to escape from the Irish that morning crowded the trench like sheep in a lane-way, and it was here that the bayonet, rifle-butt and bomb found them. Now they lay six deep in places. . . . One bare-headed man lay across the parapet, his hand grasping his rifle, his face torn to shreds with rifle bullets. One of his own countrymen, hidden in Hulluch copse, was still sniping at the dead thing, believing it to be an English soldier. Such is the irony of war. The wounded man ambled painfully behind me, grunting and groaning. Sometimes he stopped for a moment, leant against the side of the trench and swore for several seconds. Then he muttered a word of apology and followed me in silence. When we came to the places where the dead lay six deep we had to crawl across them on our hands and knees. To raise our heads over the parapet would be courting quick death. We would become part of that demolition of blood and flesh that was necessary for our victory. In front of us a crowd of civilians, old men, women and children, was crawling and stumbling over the dead bodies. A little boy was eating the contents of a bully-beef tin with great relish, and the ancient female who accompanied him crossed herself whenever she stumbled across a prostrate German. The civilians were leaving Loos.
On either side we could hear the wounded making moan, their cry was like the yelping of drowning puppies. But the man who was with me seemed unconscious of his surroundings; seldom even did he notice the dead on the floor of the trench; he walked over them unconcernedly. I managed to bring him down to the dressing-station. When we arrived he sat on a seat and cried like a child.
A NIGHT IN LOOS
"Never see good in an enemy until you have defeated him."---WAR PROVERB.
TWILIGHT softened the gaunt corners of the ruined houses, and sheaves of shadows cowered in unfathomable corners. A wine shop, gashed and fractured, said "hush!" to us as we passed; the shell-holed streets gaped at the indifferent, unconcerned sky.
"See the streets are yawning," I said to my mate, Bill Teake.
"That's because they're bored," he replied.
"Bill," I said, "what do you mean by bored?"
"They've holes in them," he answer. "Why d'yer arst me?"
'I wanted to know if you were trying to make a pun," I said. "That's all."
Bill grunted, and a moment's silence ensued.
"Suppose it were made known to you, Bill," I said, "that for the rest of your natural life this was all you could look forward to, dull hours of waiting in the trenches, sleep in sodden dugouts, eternal gun-firing and innumerable bayonet-charges; what would you do?"
"Wot would I do?" said Bill, coming to a halt in the middle of the street. "This is wot I'd do," he said with decision. "I'd put a round in the breech, lay my 'cad on the muzzle of my 'ipe, and reach down and pull the blurry trigger. Wot would you do?"
"I should become very brave," I replied.
"I see wot yer mean," said Bill. "Ye'd be up to the Victoria Cross caper, and run yer nose into danger every time yer got a chance."
"You may be right," I replied. "No one likes this job, but we all endure it as a means towards an end."
"Flat!" I yelled, flopping to the ground and, dragging Bill with me, as a shell burst on a house up the street and flung a thousand splinters round our heads. For a few seconds we cowered in the mud, then rose to our feet again.
"There are means by which we are going to end war," I said. "Did you see the dead and wounded to-day, the men groaning and shrieking, the bombs flung down into cellars, the bloodstained bayonets, the gouging and the gruelling; all those things are means towards creating peace in a disordered world.
The unrest which precedes night made itself felt in Loos. Crows made their way homeward, cleaving the air with weary wings; a tottering wall fell on the street with a melancholy clatter, and a joist creaked near at hand, yearning, as it seemed, to break free from its shattered neighbours. A lone wind rustled down the street, weeping over the fallen bricks, and crooning across barricades and machine-gun emplacements. The greyish-white evening sky cast a vivid pallor over the Twin Towers, which stood out sharply defined against the lurid glow of a fire in Lens.
All around Loos lay the world of trenches, secret streets, sepulchral towns, houses whose chimneys scarcely reached the level of the earth, crooked alleys, bayonet circled squares, and lonely graveyards where dead soldiers lay in the silent sleep that wakens to no earthly réveillé.
The night fell. The world behind the German lines was lighted up with a white glow, the clouds seemed afire, and ran with a flame that was not red and had no glare. The tint was pale, and it trailed over Lens and the spinneys near the town, and spread trembling over the levels. White as a winding sheet, it looked like a fire of frost, vast and wide diffused. Every object in Loos seemed to loose its reality, a spectral glimmer hung over the ruins, and the walls were no more than outlines. The Twin Towers was a tracery of silver and enchanted fairy construction that the sun at dawn might melt away, the barbed-wire entanglements (those in front of the second German trench had not been touched by our artillery) were fancies in gossamer. The world was an enchanted poem of contrasts of shadow and shine, of nooks and corners black as ebony, and prominent objects that shone with a spiritual glow. Men coming down the street bearing stretchers or carrying rations were phantoms, the men stooping low over the earth digging holes for their dead comrades were as ghostly as that which they buried. I lived in a strange world---a world of dreams and illusions.
Where am I? I asked myself. Am I here? Do I exist? Where are the boys who marched with me from Les Brebis last night? I had looked on them during the day, seeing them as I had never seen them before, lying in silent and unquestioning peace, close to the yearning earth. Never again should I hear them sing in the musty barns near Givenchy; never again would we drink red wine together in Café Pierre le Blanc, Nouex-les-Mines....
Bill Teake went back to his duties in the trench and left me.
A soldier came down the street and halted opposite.
"What's that light, soldier?" he asked me.
"I'm sure I don't know," I answered.
"I hear it's an ammunition depot afire in Lens," said the man. "Our shells hit it, and their blurry bullets have copped me now," he muttered, dropping on the roadway and crawling towards the shelter of the wall on his belly.
"Where are you hit?" I asked, helping him into the ruins of the estaminet---my dressing-station.
"In the leg," he answered, "just below the knee. It was when I was speaking to you about the ammunition depot on fire. 'Our shells hit it,' I said, and just then something went siss! through my calf. 'Their blurry bullets have copped me now,' I said, didn't I?"
"You did," I answered, laying my electric torch on the table and placing the wounded man on the floor. I ripped open his trousers and found the wound; the bullet had gone through the calf.
"Can you use your foot?" I asked, and he moved his boot up and down.
"No fracture," I told him. "You're all right for blighty, matey."
One of my mates who was sleeping in a cellar came up at that moment.
"Still dressing wounded, Pat?" he asked.
"I just got wounded a minute ago," said the man on the floor as I fumbled about with a first field dressing. "I was speaking to Pat about the fire at Lens, and I told him that our shells hit it, 'and a blurry bullet has copped me now,' I said, when I felt something go siss! through my leg."
"Lucky dog," said the man on the stair head. "I'd give fifteen pounds for your wound."
"Nothing doing," said the man on the floor with a laugh.
"When can I get down to the dressing-station?" he asked.
"Now, if you can walk," I told him. "If you're to be carried I shall need three other men; the mud is knee deep on the road to Maroc."
"I'll see if I can walk," said the man, and tried to rise to his feet. The effort was futile, he collapsed like a wet rag. Fifteen minutes later four of us left Loos bearing a stretcher on our shoulders, and trudged across the fields to the main road and into the crush of war traffic, hideously incongruous in the pale light of the quiet night. The night was quiet, for sounds that might make for riot were muffled by the mud. The limbers' wheels were mud to the axles, the mules drew their legs slowly out of muck almost reaching their bellies. Motor ambulances, wheeled stretchers, ammunition wagons, gun carriages, limbers, water-carts, mules, horses and men going up dragged their sluggish way through the mud on one side of the road; mules, horses and men, water-carts, limbers, gun carriages, ammunition wagons, wheeled stretchers and motor ambulances coming down moved slowly along the other side. Every man had that calm and assured in difference that comes with ordinary everyday life. Each was full of his own work, preoccupied with his toil, he was lost to the world around him. For the driver of the cart that we followed, a problem had to be worked out. The problem was this: how could he bring his mules and vehicles into Maroc and bring up a second load, then pilot his animals through mud and fire into Les Brebis before dawn; feed himself and his mules (when he got into safety), drink a glass or two of wine (if he had the money to pay for it), and wrap himself in his blanket and get to sleep in decent time for a good day's rest. Thus would he finish his night of work if the gods were kind. But they were not.
A momentary stoppage, and the mules stood stiffly in the mud, the offside wheeler twitching a long, restless ear. The driver lay back in his scat, resigned to the delay. I could see his whip in air, his face turned to the east where the blazing star-shells lit the line of battle. A machine gun spoke from Hill 70, and a dozen searching bullets whizzed about our heads. The driver uttered a sharp, infantile yell like a snared rabbit, leant sideways, and fell down on the roadway.
The mule with the twitching car dropped on top of the man and kicked out wildly with its hind legs.
"Cut the 'oss out!" yelled someone from the top of a neighbouring wagon, and three or four soldiers rushed to the rescue, pulled the driver clear, and felt his heart.
"Dead," one said, dodging to avoid the hoofs of the wounded mule. "The bullet 'as caught the poor cove in the forehead. . . . Well, it's all over now, and there's nothing to be done."
"Shoot the mule," someone suggested. "It's kicking its mate in the belly. . . . Also put the dead man out of the roadway. 'E'll get mixed with the wheels."
Someone procured a rifle, placed the muzzle close to the animal's car, and fired. The mule stretched its hind legs lazily out and ceased its struggles. Movement was resumed ahead, and dodging round the dead man, we continued our journey through the mud. It was difficult to make headway, our legs were knee-deep in slush, and the monstrous futility of shoving our way through, wearied us beyond telling. Only at rare intervals could we lift our feet clear of the ground and walk in comparative case for a few moments. Now and again a machine gun opened on the moving throng, and bullets hummed by perilously close to our ears. The stretcher was a dead weight on us, and the poles cut into our shoulders.
The Scottish had charged across the road in the morning, and hundreds had come to grief. They were lying everywhere, out on the fields, by the roadside, and in the roadway mixed up with the mud. The driver who had been killed a moment ago was so preoccupied with his task that he had no time for any other work but his own. We were all like him. We had one job to do and that job took up our whole attention until it was completed. That was why our party did not put down our stretcher on the road and raise the dead from the mud; we walked over them.
How cold they looked, the kilted lads lying on their backs in the open, their legs, bare from knee to hip, white and ghostly in the wan light of the blazing ammunition depot at Lens.
Mud on the roadway, reaching to the axles of the limber wheels, dead men on the roadside, horses and mules tugging and straining at the creaking vehicles, wounded men on the stretchers; that was the picture of the night, and on we trudged, moving atoms of a pattern that kept continually repeating itself.
The mutilated, and maimed who still lay out in the open called plaintively for succour. "For God's sake bring me away from here," a voice called. "I've been lying out this last four days." The man who spoke had been out since dawn, but periods of unconsciousness had disordered his count of time, and every conscious moment was an eternity of suffering.
We arrived at Q----- instead of Maroc, having missed the right turning. The village was crowded with men; a perfect village it was, with every house standing, though the civilian population had long since gone to other places. Two shells, monstrous twelve-inch terrors, that failed to explode, lay on the pavement at the entrance. We went past these gingerly, as ladies in dainty clothing might pass a fouling post, and carried our burden down the streets to the dressing---. station. Outside the door were dozens of stretchers, and on each a stricken soldier, quiet and resigned, who gazed into the cheerless and unconcerned sky as if trying to find some deadened hope.
A Scottish regiment relieved from the trenches stood round a steaming dixie of tea, each man with a mess-tin in his hand. I approached the Jocks.
"Any tea to spare?" I asked one.
"Aye, mon, of course there's a drappie goin'," he answered, and handed me the mess-tin from which he had been drinking.
"How did you fare to-day?" I asked.
"There's a wheen o' us left yet," he replied with a solemn smile. "A dozen dixies of tea would nae gang far among us yesterday; but wi' one dixie the noo, we've some to spare.
Wha' d'ye belong tae?" he asked.
"The London Irish," I told him.
"'Twas your fellows that kicked the futba' across the field?"
"Into the German trench?"
"Not so far," I told the man. "A bullet hit the ball by the barbed-wire entanglements; I saw it lying there during the day."
`Twas the maddest thing I've ever heard o'," said the Jock. "Hae ye lost many men?"
"A good number," I replied.
"I suppose ye did," said the man, but by his voice, I knew that he was not in the least interested in our losses; not even in the issue of battle. In fact, few of us knew of the importance of the events in which we took part, and cared as little. If I asked one of our boys at that moment what were his thoughts he would answer, if he spoke truly: "I wonder when we're going to get relieved," or "I hope we're going to get a month's rest when we get out." Soldiers always speak of "we"; the individual is submerged in his regiment. We, soldiers, are part of the Army, the British Army, which will be remembered in days to come, not by a figurehead, as the fighters of Waterloo are remembered by Wellington, but as an army mighty in deed, prowess and endurance; an army which outshone its figureheads.
I went back to the dressing-station. Our wounded man was inside, and a young doctor was busy putting on a fresh dressing. The soldier was narrating the story of his wound.
"I was speaking to a stretcher-bearer about the ammunition depot afire in Lens," he was saying. " 'Our shells hit it, and their bloomin' bullets 'ave copped me now,' I said, when something went siss! through my leg."
The man gazed round at the door and saw me.
"Wasn't that what I said, Pat?" he asked.
"Yes," I answered. "You said that their blooming bullets had copped you."